HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.

Last time (“Sudden Insight and Creativity”) I left you with a problem to solve from a cross word puzzle.  Before giving you the answer, let us go back to Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

The author takes us through a number of experimental studies, using ”insight” problems, designed to look at what happens in the brain as people solve them.  Here is one example of a problem used in these kind of studies:

Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father, yet they are not twins.  How is that possible?

If you are like most people, you are already trying to figure it out.  Also, if you are like most of the subjects in the studies, you are or will begin to feel frustrated.  According to Lehrer, the subjects in these studies complained to the scientists about the difficulties of the problems and even threatened to quit the study.  Lehrer goes on to say:

But these negative feelings are actually an essential part of the process because they signal that it’s time to try a new search strategy.  Instead of relying on the literal associations of the left hemisphere, the brain needs to shift activity to the other side, to explore a more unexpected set of associations.  It is the struggle that focuses to try something new. (p. 17)

Based on various art projects I have worked on and based on my practice of Zen meditation, I recognize the process being described here.  I’m sure you do too, even if you are not an artist or a Zenny.  Valuable insights and bursts of creative solutions to problems seem to require slogging through periods of right brain analysis until one gives up.  And then, if you are lucky, you experience a breakthrough.

According to Lehrer:

One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.  While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. (p.33)

What I take from this is that struggle is part of the creative process.  Lehrer doesn’t say it directly, but implies that, over time (with practice?), one learns to trust or, at least tolerate the process.  This is one way of thinking about what both creative and spiritual practices are all about.  When we first become artists, we are likely to assume that creative people should not struggle; creativity just comes naturally. Likewise, those on a spiritual path often assume that, through practice, they will reach a state where  all seeking or searching ceases.  I think both views are unrealistic.

In both cases there is a continual searching for ways of self-expression that go beyond what we are now. And, this may involve struggle. What practice can do is to ease the struggle about the struggle.  If we understand how the creative process or the self-transformation process works, we are less prone to suffer whenever we are not “advancing” in ways we would hope.  We develop faith that, through continued practice, the unresolved issue will become resolved.

I’ll return to Lehrer’s book in the next post.  If you haven’t read the previous post and want to solve the cross word puzzle I mention there, do not read any further.

ANSWER:

You’ll recall that the answer to the clue “shopping center” was “pees”.

As to why that was the correct answer, simply look at the letters in the middle (the center) of the word “shopping”. When we were working on the cross-word puzzle, the term “shopping center” conjured up the image of a collection of retail stores.  Not knowing that this was a “trick” question, I had to let go of that association before realizing that there had to be another way of approaching it. When I stopped struggling to figure out what pees had to do with a commercial site, the solution became possible.

4 thoughts on “HOW CREATIVITY WORKS.

  1. Letting go of associations between things is the important bridge to the “aha” moment, or the eureka effect. It happens all the time in jazz improvisation. If you discover a note that sounds good in a musical phrase, you remember where it was within a musical phrase; for example, substituting a note in a chord. Say it’s a C major chord spelled C-E-G. The chord is C major but you slip a D into the melody and discover that it sounds good. Wow, that sounds good. (Aha moment). You will want to use it the next time you get to that point in the song because it sounded so good when you accidentally stubbled upon it. And then you let go of the association which told you that D does not belong in a C chord.

  2. There is a difference between solving a small problem and making a great discovery. The question is, what makes a great discovery great? — an Aha moment. It’s a matter of degree.

    • Yeah, and the problems and suffering faced by subjects in the experiments cited by Lehrer are pretty minor in
      comparison to those Frankl had in mind in the quote below. The comment below was sent to me by a reader via email so I have not listed her name.

      “I think that Viktor Frankl understood this notion that (some degree of) suffering
      is necessary to “burn through” the conditioning that limits, or completely stifles,
      our creativity. See quote below.” Anonymous.
      “What is to give light must endure burning.” — Viktor Frankl

      • It is virtually imlsosibpe to measure creativity. There are so many scales and so many degrees and categories of creative genius that it is just not sensible to test it in a systematic way. How to test your creativity? I guess you can start by exploring what talents you already have and building on it. For example, if you’re somewhat good at drawing, try to invest some time in drawing something novel and extraordinary and see how it goes. Also, try playing with legos. Try building things using those toy blocks to see how creative you can be. I can also refer you to some sites which claim to test creative intellect so message me if you’re interested. It’s important to remember that creativity can never truly be tested and the creative geniuses of long ago devoted substantial time to their efforts in order to be considered creative. Finally, I think you’re creative already for trying to find the answer to such an unique question in a place like this. Best of luck on your journey